Poem of the month analysis for the “Poetry Book Club”
Poem of the month: “Colors passing through us,” by Marge Piercy
Welcome to the first session of the Afternoon Poetry Club. Valentine’s Day is about to pass by this week so we’re going to think about love, or rather, about love poems in this first session.
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet,
And so are you.
The origins of this traditional English language love poem are unknown. It is thought to date back to 1590, to Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, The Faerie Queene, which contains images of red roses, blue violets, and other sweet flowers. A version of the poem is known to have existed in the 18th century in the form of a nursery rhyme (i.e., a short poem or song for children). In more recent times, it has traditionally been written in a card and given as a gift on Valentine’s Day.
Although the poem is short and simple, it draws our attention to some very important features of poetry in general, and of love poetry in particular. In its four lines it offers us some very specific, very vivid images. The red of the roses and the blue of the violets establish the importance of color when creating powerful images within a poem. The speaker of the poem also compares his or her beloved to sugar, and, by association, to other sweet things. Here, we become aware of simile, metaphor, and other poetic devices used to compare one thing to another. These techniques evoke one thing in the reader’s mind by referring to another. The lines “Sugar is sweet / And so are you,” make us think of the word “sweetheart,” which is a synonym for “loved one.” We remember, too, that in contemporary American English, “sugar” can be used as a term of affection for someone you love.
In effect, the poem invites us to think about the combination of these images and how they work to enhance one another. The beloved is not only compared to sugar, but also to other sweet – or sweet-smelling – things, such as fragrant flowers, like roses. Flowers are beautiful, and so is my beloved. Beautiful flowers remind me of my beautiful beloved, and so I give her a bouquet of flowers as a gift to express my love and affection.
Marge Piercy’s “Colors passing through us” (1999) also employs these same literary devices and techniques, although on a much grander scale. Imagery plays a central role in our understanding and enjoyment of the poem. Her poem is full of vivid, colorful, and somewhat perplexing images that invite us to think about their relationship to the speaker and her beloved. In “Colors passing through us” we encounter goats, frogs, lettuce, cheese, coal, and puddles on the sidewalk. Why has Piercy chosen to compare and associate her beloved with these earthly, earthy, and everyday things, things that are not often associated with romance? Does Piercy’s use of these ordinary images in a love poem elevate them to a higher, perhaps more spiritual or mystical position? Do we see them in a new light?
Read the poem slowly, and as you read, pay attention to the different images it contains. Which one is the most vivid for you? Which one is the most surprising? Are there any ordinary things in your life that you associate with a loved one or a special memory?
Whether they follow a traditional rhyme scheme or a modern, free verse, love poems are, as Piercy says, “sing / song[s] of all the things that make [us] think of” someone we love. I will leave you with this thought, and a head full of colorful images, and see you on the 17th.